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In 2013, Climate 'Resiliency' Officially Entered the Lexicon

The 'tidal wave of interest' in building climate-resilient cities is expected to snowball next year as various initiatives pick up speed.

Dec 31, 2013
Aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey

The debate about tackling climate change has long revolved around the twin challenges of mitigating global warming and adapting to its more predictable long-term impacts—rising seas, higher peak temperatures, relentless drought.

Now a new concept has risen: "climate resiliency," or preparing cities for climate change's unforeseen and destructive disasters and disruptions. Resiliency includes adaptation measures—such as rebuilding wetlands or moving homes onto higher foundations as a way to fight floods—but it's also about armoring entire populations so they can absorb and quickly recover from sudden calamity.

Resiliency is "a more holistic perspective on creating stronger and more prepared communities," said Brian Holland, the director of climate programs at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, a nonprofit based in Germany with U.S. headquarters in Oakland, Calif. "We're not just reacting to climate change. We're looking at how to build communities that can bounce forward" after a shock.

Although scientists and academics have long fretted about the resiliency of the word's cities amid increasing bursts of deadly weather, 2013 saw the concept enter the American lexicon after Superstorm Sandy brought the issue of to the fore. The devastation left by the climate-fueled hurricane—the pummeled houses, stranded families, electricity outages and damage to critical shipping ports—showed just how ill-prepared many cities are for a rapidly changing climate. Leaders began raising the issue publicly for the first time in media interviews, during urban policy panels and at national conferences.

The "little burbling" of activity turned into "a tidal wave of interest" that is likely to snowball next year, according to Rosina Bierbaum, an expert on climate change adaptation at the University of Michigan.

Sandy wasn't the only wake-up call. In 2012, America faced 11 weather disasters that topped $1 billion in losses each, including a persistent drought that covered 60 percent of the country at one point. This year has seen destructive wildfires, heavy flooding and record-breaking heat waves.

VIDEO: Superstorm Sandy One Year Later: 'We're Still Living Through It'

No U.S. city did more to put the concept of resiliency on the map this year than New York City, where Sandy caused $20 billion in economic losses and killed 44 people. According to a recent InsideClimate News report—Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City—Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his staff saw the limits of the city's mitigation-focused climate policy following Sandy. In June, they launched a comprehensive $19.5 billion resiliency plan to safeguard the city from future disasters, with policies that would keep electricity, fuel supplies, sewage controls and hospitals running during a storm, among hundreds of other initiatives. All of those services shut down during or after Sandy.

"Other cities are going to need to go through a similar exercise at different levels ... perhaps with risks different to those in New York City," Daniel Zarrilli, the city's resiliency director, a newly created post, said in a recent interview.

MORE: Bloomberg's Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City

Some cities already are—from flood and wildfire-prone Boulder, Colo., to Norfolk, Va., which faces some of the highest sea level rise in the nation. Both are part of the Rockefeller Foundation's new 100 Resilient Cities Network, an effort to turn participants into models of resiliency for cities around the world to follow.

In 2014, a handful of U.S. and global initiatives run by foundations, non-profits, international institutions and government agencies will aim to ensure that climate resilience moves from a buzzword into a core principle of urban planning.

Here's a sampling of what's on tap:

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